Blinded by the brainwasher

Kyodo News/February 27, 2004

Tokyo -- Shoko Asahara, the cult guru whose marathon trial ended on Friday, used a mix of charisma, mysticism and the lure of power to brainwash his followers, who committed one of Japan's most shocking crimes.

Prosecutors see in the near-blind yoga-master, who managed to attract 10 000 followers, including misfit elite doctors and engineers to his cult, a man driven by wordly motives.

"Asahara cleverly brainwashed believers by taking mercy on them and then threatening them physically and mentally," said Kimiaki Nishida, assistant professor of social psychology at Shizuoka University.

"He had an outstanding ability to lure young people, who felt a sense of emptiness in Japanese society," Nishida said.

Asahara promised his followers that "people who have acquired the power of god through the right kind of training will be the ones to create a new world after 1997," when he said Armgeddon would come.

One of seven children of a poor straw mat maker, Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was born on March 2, 1955 in Yatsuhiro on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.

Almost blind in one eye, Asahara was admitted to a state boarding school for blind children when he was six.

Absolute ruler

His school days were already characterised by his behaviour as an "absolute ruler" among the other completely blind children.

"For him, violence was something like a hobby. Once he got angry, there was no way to stop it," a former classmate once said.

Asahara left school at 19 after qualifying as an acupuncturist. He was turned down to study medicine because of his eyesight.

He then decided to study law at the elite Tokyo University - a classic route into politics - but failed to get in.

In 1978, Asahara married Tomoko, with whom he had four daughters and two sons.

He opened an acupuncture clinic in Funabashi, east of Tokyo, but was forced to close his business after being arrested and fined in 1982 for selling quack medicine.

Emerging as a yoga instructor

Asahara spent two years as a recluse - reportedly travelling to India and reading religious books - before emerging as a yoga instructor in 1984. He launched "Aum Shinsennokai," a religious group renamed as Aum Shinrikyo (Aum Supreme Truth) in 1987.

Claiming to have achieved enlightenment in the Himalayas in 1986, Asahara lured young people into the sect by telling them they would gain "super power" through his training programmes.

Some claimed the bearded and pony-tailed guru who wore Chinese-style pajama tunics had extra-sensory powers, and said he could levitate for hours at a time.

In 1990, Asahara, his wife and 23 Aum followers ran unsuccessfully for election to the lower house of parliament.


Following the disappointment, Asahara turned increasingly "anti-social", analysts said. His sermons began to include the prediction that a cataclysmic war would sweep the world in 1997, which only a few people would survive.

Even though the sect, now renamed Aleph, disowned Asahara in 1999, experts believe his persona still exercises a strong hold on cultists, some of whom use pictures of the guru and recordings of his voice for meditation.

But even some of Asahara's one-time closest acolytes have undergone enlightenment of their own.

"The concept that saving people's souls is possible drove the cult to commit criminal acts," Kazuaki Okazaki, a 43-year-old former Aum member currently appealing against his own death sentence, told the Yomiuri Shimbun.

"Asahara isn't Buddha, nor is he a person who reached Nirvana. He's just a paranoid control freak," Okazaki said in a letter to the daily.

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